All Hail: Don’t talk to strangers?

I would like to make a proposition, and any parents out there reading this may not like it. Not because it’s scandalous or immoral, but because it goes against one of the basic tenets of childhood: Don’t talk to strangers. I, however, would like to propose that we should talk to strangers often, and with near-reckless abandon, at least on planes.

This thought occurred to me recently while I was making several long flights home and back for Christmas break. Cross-country flying gives a person a lot of time to think, and it occurred to me that we are bound by a strange etiquette on airplanes. We exchange as few words as possible with the people sitting next to us, and sometimes don’t speak at all. On some of my flights, I was seated in my window seat, and as my seatmates came along, they would sit without eye contact or so much as a grunt of acknowledgement. This airplane etiquette prevents us from talking to each other, and yet we sit so much closer together than polite society would usually allow.

On one of my recent flights, I was seated next to a larger woman, who took up a bit of my seat in addition to her own. She was by no means obese and the situation was not uncomfortable, but the net result was that we spent five hours with our posteriors touching. This is more physical contact than my rear end has had in months, and yet I don’t know this woman’s name, where she’s from or what she loves in this world that keeps her going every day.

In some ways, I think it’s the close physical proximity of airplanes that creates this emotional and mental distance. If we were seated a little further apart, perhaps we would introduce ourselves and act like humans. But the closeness makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do, so we deal with it by politely ignoring each other, as though this will make us feel better about the situation. It’s a bizarre phenomenon of air travel, but I also think it’s a product of the times in which we live.

We can’t be bothered to interact with strangers, because we’re too busy with all the time-wasters we’ve created for ourselves. We’re watching DVDs on our portable players, chatting on our Blackberries and tuned into our iPods. Who has the time for a real-time conversation with a stranger when we have so many devices to keep up with? It is my genuine belief that if we didn’t have this overload of gadgetry, we would strike up conversations with our seatmates. It would be the natural thing to do to pass the time.

It’s not that I think we should spend the whole flight chatting with a randomly-assigned seat buddy. I like to get some reading done on planes, and of course there’s always the possibility that you’re sitting next to a crazy person of some ilk or other. Once when I was 13, a woman named Rebecca engaged me in a conversation about religion, and by the end of the flight she was praying to save my soul. It was a bad deal. So I’m not advocating deep discussion with your seatmate – in fact I strongly recommend staying off religion and politics. But how about a “Hello, my name is Jane Doe, I’m traveling to a Star Trek convention and I like to paint. I’ll be invading your personal space today.”

It deeply saddens me that we’ve become so uptight and self-absorbed that we can’t talk to one another on planes. I think what saddens me the most is that it seems like such a waste. How often, in this frantic life, do we just have a block of time to sit still and get to know a stranger? Only on buses, trains and airplanes. So if you’re ever seated next to me on an airplane, I may introduce myself to you.

Hello, my name is Hailey. I go to school in Boston, and I wish there was more real talking and less mindless text messaging in the world. Nice to meet you.

– Hailey Heinz is a sophomore journalism major and member of The News Staff.

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